"The first time I had Mondeuse it just struck me… I’d just never had anything like it before. That was it - I’d connected immediately to a wine, fallen in love with a grape and my search for more became a pure obsession."
WHEN LITTLEWINE MET JAIMEE
It’s 2017 and we’re on our first ever wine trip to California. We’ve just been driving into Sebastopol, where we get pulled over by a policeman who yells, “Ma’am, pull over the vehicle!” on his scratchy megaphone. It turns out he wanted to give us a fine because we had parked facing the wrong way on the street, something that we do in England all the time. Whoops. Luckily, as we had a British driving licence, he didn’t have a clue what to do with us, so let us go with a stern tap on the wrists.
Suffice to say, we’re somewhat embarrassed, a little flustered and overly relieved to make it to Pax Wine Cellars, where we are due to be meeting a guy called Scott Schultz, creator of Jolie Laide Wines, whose wines were some of the first American wines that caught our attention.
As we’re tasting and chatting at the bar, a young lady who looks about our age comes over to ask Scott something. We're introduced and discover that her name is Jaimee.
We learn that, like Scott, she works as Pax Mahle's assistant. Scott adds, with an almost-brotherly sense of pride,
“She’s also made her own wine in 2016; it’s over there in barrel.”
Jaimee smiles, saying,
“Yeah, you wanna taste? I can pull a sample for you?”
We nod and curiously ask her what it is.
We blink, surprised, and add,
“Mondeuse? We love the variety but we never knew that it was planted in California, and we hadn't even heard of it before last year!”
We first learnt about Mondeuse at a Grape Conference of sorts, in Southwest France. The purpose was to educate about lesser-known grape varieties and to highlight the importance of safeguarding their genetic history for future generations. Just like how animals and plants can become extinct if neglected, grape varieties can also disappear forever.
Mondeuse had been one of the grape varieties discussed, and there was a mini tasting of cuvées made by winemakers in the Savoie. In the past, it was difficult to achieve the desired levels of ripeness every year, but with global warming, it has become reliable. The alcohol level sits at a modest 12.5% or below, and in a world that's heating up, but in which people want lower alcohol wines, that characteristic is like gold dust.
When we tasted the wines at the "Grape Conference", we were smitten immediately. So, imagine our surprise, standing here, glass in hand, with a young woman who is dedicated to bringing this variety the recognition it deserves on the other side of the world.
Jaimee grew up on the East Coast, in Annapolis, Maryland. Her family have a restaurant there, and she fondly recalls spending most of her childhood in it. Her passion has always been art, so she found herself packing her bags and moving to San Francisco to attend grad school for painting, with the eventual goal of becoming a teacher. However, just like anyone in their mid 20s, she wasn’t entirely sure if that was the right path for her.
During her studies, she took on a job as a waitress at the restaurant RN74. It has since closed its doors, but for the eight years it was open its wine list, curated by sommelier extraordinaire Rajat Parr, was considered one of the greatest in the world.
Jaimee remembers, “the level of wine knowledge that was required, even for a waitress, was very extensive. I started to bury myself in wine books and cooking books, and I was meeting loads of winemakers who were passing through the restaurant. It created a whole new passion for me. I’ve always loved the tactile element of working with my hands and being outside, so I decided to give it a go and do a harvest one year.”
This led her to work part time at RN74 three days a week, while harvesting four days a week at a microwinery in Sonoma called Sheldon Wines. She was hooked immediately, and for the next few years she “harvest hopped” between the Northern and Southern hemispheres and interned for winemakers across California.
“It’s funny… when I think about it I realise that’s how it happened for so many of us. Rajat Parr, Pax Mahle, Scott Schultz and Patrick Cappiello; the people I’m around all the time out here; they all worked in restaurants before becoming winemakers, too. We all find a similarity in that... Everyone kind of segwayed into it.”
Jaimee eventually found a permanent position as winemaking assistant at Pax Wines. Pax Mahle is considered to be one of the top producers of California, particularly of Syrah, and in this cellar, her wine education was propelled forward.
Her colleagues, mostly men, are her support network, and they’re her best friends as well as her co-workers. She even ended up marrying a fellow winemaker last year, Nico Cueva.
The sex divide in wine, however, is not always so easy.
“Honestly, I’ve lost count of the amount of time delivery drivers arrive, see me, and ask, “Hey girl, do you know anyone here that drives a forklift?!” … and I’m like yeah… me?!”
Reactions like this, however, are more of an annoyance than a hindrance for her. She knows that the industry is changing, and today she supports other young women move up the winemaking ladder.
After seeing friends and colleagues start their own wine brands, the idea of starting her own label has started to twinkle in the horizons of her mind. She had never forgotten the bottles that had sparked her initial love for wine at RN74, and there was one particular grape variety that kept poking her memory.
“Obviously there were some of the best Burgundy bottles in the world on that list, but there was this section of bottles under $50 that I would study intensely; bottles that were a bit more, let's say, "in my wheelhouse." There were wines on there that almost nobody except Raj had heard of; wines that have become famous now. It was there that I discovered the Belluard Mondeuse 2010 from the Savoie, and it just struck me… the vibrancy of it, that freshness and complexity, I’d just never had anything like it before. That was it - I’d connected immediately to a wine, fallen in love with a grape and my search for more became a pure obsession."
So when the opportunity arose for her to create her own wines in 2016, she jumped at the chance.
Her first two wines were crafted from Mondeuse and Chenin Blanc. We ask her how she came to decide on Chenin, to which she replies,
“My interest in Chenin began at around the same time as Mondeuse; there were some incredible Loire cuvees on that same sub $50 list. It’s a variety that just spoke to me; I really enjoy high acid wines that have vibrancy and complexity, and Chenin fulfilled all of those things. In 2015, I took a six-week solo trip to Europe to study and to meet farmers, and a week in the Loire was enough to fall for the variety. There’s something so unique about it, it’s so versatile.”
She goes on to explain that although there is a lot of Chenin Blanc planted in California, it wasn’t easy to find a vineyard with all the factors she was hoping for.
She found the dream vineyard in the southeastern hills of Ukiah in Mendocino. It is owned by Tim Norgard, a third-generation farmer (his grandfather came to Mendocino in the 1890s), who started farming here in 1971. As well as grapes, his family also farm peaches and other crops. In her words, “he has lived and breathed Mendocino farming his whole life.”
Here, the vineyards are nestled in rolling hills, lying at just 210m above sea level, and the soils are flinty and very fine, composed of a specific type of gravelly loam called “Pinole.” Planted in 1980, these are old Chenin vines by Californian standards.
It is a cool site that produces tiny berries with thick skins, and perhaps most importantly of all for Jaimee: low pH levels. The natural acidity that this parcel produces means that the wine becomes stable all on its own; high acid wine is an inhospitable environment for unwanted bacteria.
Next, the ultimate dream came true: she found Mondeuse in California. A friend of hers introduced her to a winemaker who had a little Mondeuse available for sale to a good home. Located in the Santa Maria Valley, the vineyard was planted in 1994 on sandy loam, with limestone that washes down from the vineyard situated above it. This is the site that gave birth to her first wine. She loves the vineyard and tells us that it produces perfect acid levels year-on-year and that the wine she makes from this site always ferments happily.
However, this wasn't the only Mondeuse vineyard in California she was destined to make wine from. She met a fellow winemaker who was united in her mission: Matthew Rorick.
“Matthew is an incredible person, he has become a close friend,” Jaimee enthuses, her eyes lighting up. “He’s also a wonderful farmer and winemaker. The first time I went to the vineyard, well… Wow. It’s just stunning. It’s kind of like a beautiful giant bowl, and the Mondeuse sits at 610m elevation, at the highest point of the vineyard.”
It was planted in 2002, originally to Graciano, but these two Mondeuse fanatics grafted it across to Mondeuse in 2015. It is rooted in schist, with some limestone further down, somewhat of a geological mystery to Jaimee.
“I’m not sure how and why the soils are composed in that way… I need to get a geologist to visit that site. It’s not even that close to where I live, but I’m just captivated by it. It’s such a pleasure to go there and to have such close relationships with the people that you buy fruit from. It’s an honour for me to work with them.”
2017 also saw the birth of her Cabernet Sauvignon cuvée. She hadn't really envisioned making Cabernet, but when the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with a historic Santa Cruz Mountain site of very old and dry-farmed vines arose, the Peter Martin Ray vineyard, she simply couldn’t turn it down. Today, her love of that wine has also led to her experimenting with a nod to old-school Bordeaux, Clairet-style, with a co-fermentation of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec.
Jaimee’s winemaking philosophy is simple.
"I make my wines instinctively, by doing what makes sense to me. Even with my Cabernet - I’ve never been to Bordeaux and I’ve never worked at a Napa Cab winery. I just do what feels right.”
For her Chenin Blanc, this means simple whole cluster pressing, and long ageing. The latter is crucial for her. She reminisces;
“I fell in love with the wine after it had been in barrel for 15 months. It started to take on this whole new textural dimension and the acids started integrating, and it became complete. I then bottled it after 18 months had passed, when I felt it was at its best.”
Her reds are made as gently as possible; with whole bunches and as few punch-downs as possible. She contemplates,
“When we talk about “natural wine”; well… I don’t “advertise” that my wines are natural, but by definition they are, because nothing is added; only the tiniest amount of sulphur. My philosophy is to try to do as little as possible in the cellar, to let the vineyard best express itself. I feel so lucky to even be able to buy fruit from these vineyards, so moving forward, my focus just lies with getting to know them better, and by honing in on them.”
We think the vineyards are pretty lucky that Jaimee got to know them, too.
Want to drink a rare Savoyard grape variety that found an unusual home in California? Feel like a rosé that makes you question what "rosé" even means?